Our Sputnik moment: India must quickly scale up vaccine manufacturing capacity through advance payments

Russian vaccine Sputnik V is on the verge of getting emergency use approval in India. This development comes in the backdrop of states reverting to lockdowns to cope with India’s second wave of coronavirus. This period has also seen a ramp up in vaccination, with a cumulative 104.52 million doses given till Sunday night. To put this data in context, Israel and the US have fully vaccinated about 54% and 22% of their population respectively, while India is at around 1%.

Expanding vaccination coverage is the best and quickest way to limit the pandemic. The government must leverage India’s famed vaccine production capability and work to make more vaccines available quickly. Bharat Biotech plans to enhance its production capacity to more than double its monthly output by July. Separately, Indian manufacturers of Sputnik V are likely to increase manufacturing capacity. Avoiding regressive measures like lockdowns, which extract a huge economic cost, depends on the speed with which vaccines can be brought into play. Here, the 2020 experience is worth revisiting.

Time is of the essence in combating a pandemic. Therefore, vaccines need to have their development cycles compressed to minimise damage. The US government launched Operation Warp Speed in May last year to underwrite the financial risks in vaccine development. The $18 billion effort allowed manufacturers to build capacity even before vaccines had received regulatory approval. This shortened the time to kick off vaccination drives. Similarly, the multilateral Covax alliance tied up with Serum Institute through advance payments before the AstraZeneca clinical trials were completed. Covax locked in a price of $3 to $3.15 a dose.

India’s large vaccine manufacturing capacity puts us in a unique position as we can fully vaccinate the adult population faster than most countries. Covaxin was a good effort which brought together Bharat Biotech and ICMR. Now, there is a pressing need for government to step on the gas. Upfront investment in manufacturing capacity will allow for smooth rollout of vaccination at a fast clip. The government can lock in both quantity and price for its advance payments, which will allow vaccination to progress in a stable environment. These investments will generate manifold returns through an end to lockdowns and resumption of full economic activity. Not to mention the priceless benefit of an end to the suffering caused by the pandemic.


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